As any Michigander knows, any time is the best time to get out and explore all that the Mitten State has to offer. With so many lakefront towns, unique museums, rich history, and professional and minor league sports, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
If you’re looking for the perfect family activity, look no further than the Detroit Zoo. No matter if you’re 5 years old, 15 years old, or 50 years old, it’s hard not to have fun at a zoo when you’re surrounded by so many great animals and other creatures.
The Detroit Zoo is the perfect place to spend a sunny day, having fun and creating lasting family memories.
History of the Detroit Zoo
The Detroit Zoo, currently located in Metro Detroit’s Royal Oak, houses animals of all kinds — more than 2,000 animals of more than 200 species.
While this Michigan zoo is a favorite of residents and visitors alike, it’s also recognized around the world as a leader in conservation, sustainability, and animal welfare.
The Zoo’s Origins
The first Detroit Zoo opened on Michigan and Trumbull Avenues across the street from Tiger Stadium in 1883. It lasted just a year before it closed because of a lack of funding.
In the wake of the closure, many prominent Detroiters formed the Detroit Zoological Society and made plans for a world-class zoo. The society eventually bought property along Woodward Avenue and enlisted the help of designer Heinrich Hagenbeck to turn plans for a new and improved zoo into reality.
The Zoo’s Reopening
The zoo reopened in 1928 to record crowds, and visitors flocked to Detroit to ride Paulina the elephant and to see the new pair of lion cubs. By 1930, the zoo added bear dens and a sheep rock, and it was one of the first zoos in the United States to have cageless exhibits.
The Zoo’s Expansion
Since the 1940s, expansion has gradually continued at the zoo to bring to life many of the exhibits that visitors enjoy today. Sculptor Corrado Parducci created the zoo’s famous Bear Fountain in 1939, and the revolutionary Penginarium opened in 1968.
In 2001, the Arctic Ring of Life opened as one of the largest polar bear exhibits in North America. Five years later, the zoo added its Australian Outback Adventure. Then, the Polk Penguin Conservation Center opened in 2016, becoming the largest space on Earth dedicated to the study of penguins.
Exciting Exhibits at the Detroit Zoo
The Detroit Zoo is one of the oldest in the United States and is one of the most widely respected today. No matter if this is your first time visiting or you’ve been here many times, you’re going to be amazed when you see the amazing array of creatures, big and small.
Tauber Family Railroad
With 125 acres of space, the Detroit Zoo has a lot of ground to cover. One of the best moves you can make upon your arrival, especially if you have young kids, is to hitch a ride on the Tauber Family Railroad.
It has served half a million passengers a year since it was presented to the zoo in 1931. Families can get on at the main station near the zoo entrance and ride it up to the Africa Station, allowing for a nice relaxing stroll through the zoo exhibits back toward the entrance.
Polk Penguin Conservation Center
Newly renovated and reopened in February 2022, the Polk Penguin Conservation Center is one of the biggest and most extraordinary habitats for penguins in the world.
It’s located not too far from the entrance, so if you’re looking for a cool exhibit to start with, this is a good one to pick. One of the most impressive parts of the center is a 25-foot-deep, 326,000-gallon tank where you can watch in awe as penguins explore their habitat.
The center is home to more than 74 penguins, including rockhopper, king, macaroni, chinstrap, and Gentoo penguins. It evokes the feeling and environment of an iceberg right down to blasts of sea mist and polar air upon entering. That feeling is further recreated with a 4D experience that includes projection mapping of falling icebergs.
A visit to the Detroit Zoo is all about having fun and making some great memories. One of the best ways to do that is through interactive experiences like the giraffe encounter.
An elevated platform brings you to eye level with these tall animals and allows you to feed them, weather permitting. Tickets for the different feeding sessions are sold at the Ambassador Booth just inside the zoo’s main entrance.
4D Theater Experience
The animals are the main attraction at the Detroit Zoo, but there are lots of other experiences that you can’t find anywhere else. The 4D theater is one such experience.
It includes a state-of-the-art sound system, great special effects, and more than 100 seats. You can experience one of several theater offerings, including “Ice Age: Dawn of Dinosaurs” and “Tiny Giants.”
Sayaka Ganz: Reclaimed Creations
Sayaka Ganz has created one of the zoo’s most unique exhibits with impressionist art that depicts animals in motion using reclaimed plastic objects. Ganz uses the plastic as a painter uses brush strokes, which become more visible the closer that you examine them.
Located right next to one of the main dining areas, the carousel is fun for the whole family! This one has almost three dozen carved, hand-painted figures, including mammals, birds, insects, and snakes. It’s fun for everyone and a great way to get off your feet for a few minutes if you need a break from exploring.
Animal Exhibits at the Detroit Zoo
The Detroit Zoo’s 125 acres feature many award-winning animal exhibits that delight all ages. Here’s a look at some of these exhibits.
Located on the northwest side of the zoo, this habitat is home to several species native to Africa. Some of the animals you’ll see include ostrich, white stork, eland, greater flamingo, Chilean flamingo, and vultures. The Great Apes of Harambee is part of this area and features a trio of silverback gorillas and a dozen chimps.
Arctic Ring of Life
This is one of the largest polar bear exhibits in North America and is a sight to behold! You can see these wondrous animals in an icy underwater environment that’s complete with the Polar Passage, a 70-foot tunnel where you can see the bears up close.
Holden Reptile Conservation Center
Here, you’ll be amazed to see more than 150 reptiles, representing dozens of species. Keep your eyes peeled for the matamata turtle, massasauga rattlesnake, green tree python, and many more.
There are more than 20 bird species that swim, fly, and walk under the cover of tropical plants in this exhibit. Some of the species include scarlet ibis, Taveta golden weaver, and the African pygmy goose.
Cotton Family Wolf Wilderness
Seated in the southwest corner of the zoo, this 2-acre habitat is home to rolling meadows, Michigan trees, and wolves, which are a sight to see in their surroundings.
Australian Outback Adventure
Fans of the outback will delight in this exhibit, which features nearly a dozen kangaroos and three red-necked wallabies. You can get up close and personal with these fun marsupials in this immersive habitat.
Experiencing the Detroit Zoo in Winter
During the cold winter months, the last thing on many peoples’ minds is a day trip to the zoo. That’s only reserved for summer vacation fun with the kids, right? Nope! Visiting the Detroit Zoo during the winter is one of the best winter things to do in Michigan.
Many people don’t know that the Detroit Zoo is open year-round. But, here’s what going to the zoo is like in the winter through a personal experience.
On a random winter day in 2017, I bucked the trend and navigated my way to Royal Oak. I purchased my ticket and paid for parking. Inside the park of 2,000+ animals of hundreds of different species, it became apparent why you should get to the Detroit Zoo TODAY.
Other people were there as well, but I felt like I had the zoo all to myself. It was the “off-season.” I had a front-row pass to see all the animals and for however long I desired.
To my advantage, the animals were more interactive than usual. Several of the staff members explained the reason behind this to me. During the hot and humid months, animals tend to want to hide in the shade and be lazy. (Don’t we all?)
Sure, the concession stands weren’t open, but I was relaxed in the cool air, and the zebras were moving about without a care in the world.
Get Up-Close With the Penguins
The Polk Penguin Conservation Center was the best benefit of the empty zoo. There are 80 penguins of four different species housed at the Detroit Zoo. Their habitat is a simulated environment of their natural habitat.
The Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conversation Center is the biggest center for penguin learning in the world. Yes, that is right here in the Mitten!
I mingled with a couple of Gentoo penguins up close as they came right up to the glass. The male penguins were placing rocks in a circle, as it was mating season. One-on-one interaction with exhibitors taught me these tidbits.
I proceeded downstairs where I watched the penguins swim circles from above and alongside.
Tip: During the summer when you enter the zoo, you get a scheduled time to go into the penguin center. Even then, good luck getting right up to the glass to see the penguins. Make winter the time to get here.
Enjoy the Vitamin Z
My boy is still too young to experience the Detroit Zoo to the fullest. Soon, though, he will take in a lot of “Vitamin Z.” He will experience lots of random moments of awe and joy. Vitamin Z was an award-winning campaign that centers on children enjoying everything the zoo has to offer.
I think some of the Vitamin Z rubbed off on me as I checked out the camels, tigers, giraffes, lions, anteaters, reptiles, butterflies, and more. The blood was flowing from all the walking and excitement on the zoo’s 125 acres.
Polar Bears & Kangaroos
Another highlight as I enjoyed the outdoors was The Arctic Ring of Life. I headed back underground to a seventy-foot walkway, watching numerous seals swim all around me.
The zoo is no longer home to seals but now has a sea otter exhibit.
I got my polar bear fix at the largest exhibit of its kind in North America. The Detroit Zoo doesn’t do small!
Fact: The Detroit Zoo is the largest paid family attraction in Michigan.
At the back of the grounds, I learned that the Detroit Zoo is the first in the United States to use exhibits without bars. This zoo helped revolutionize the entire field, I cannot wait to hear what they have up their sleeve next.
They take it a step further at the Australian Outback Adventure. I walked among many kangaroos and a wallaby with no barriers. Sadly, no hopping took place on the sidewalk alongside me.
A visit to the Detroit Zoo this winter is just the tip of the iceberg of all the amazing winter things to do in Metro Detroit! From the best Metro Detroit cross country skiing trails to shopping at locally-owned stores across the region, there is no shortage of ways to enjoy winter in Southeast Michigan!
Dining at the Detroit Zoo
After a day of exploring at the zoo, you’re going to be hungry. When you are, the zoo has plenty of options to feed all appetites, big and small. To make things even more convenient, many of the zoo’s locations have mobile ordering available.
- Table 28 — Formerly known as the Arctic Cafe, this cafe offers visitors chicken tenders, truffle fries, salads, sandwiches, pasta, and much more.
- Cup & Pint — Part of Table 28, this spot offers visitors hot coffee, espresso, cold brew, nitro brew, and even cold beer.
- Buddy’s Pizza — Square Detroit-style is a Michigan favorite, and pizza lovers can get it at the Detroit Zoo. Visitors can get pizza, salads, breadsticks, beer, and other cold beverages perfect for a hot day.
- Boardwalk Station — Open on the weekends, this spot offers soft pretzels, bacon and cheese fries, ICEE drinks, and more goodies.
- Dippin’ Dots — These ice cream sensations are the perfect treat on a hot day.
- American Coney Island — Coney dogs are another Michigan staple, and you can stop for a coney, chili-cheese fries, and Michigan draft beer at this restaurant.
Events at the Detroit Zoo
The Detroit Zoo is not only home to thousands of animals and fun, interactive exhibits, but it’s also the site of many fun events throughout the year. Some of the most popular events each year include:
- Detroit Zoo Boo
- Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo
- Sunset at the Zoo
- Run Wild
- Polar Beers
But, the zoo can be much more and offers several private events and experiences. A family picnic or a birthday party can be made all the more special with a specially reserved area under a tent.
Also, it’s the perfect place for a charity walk, a corporate event, or even a wedding if you want the zoo to be a part of your special day.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Detroit Zoo
Are you planning a trip to the Detroit Zoo soon? Here’s what you need to know before you go!
Where is the Detroit Zoo?
The Detroit Zoo is located at 8450 W. 10 Mile Rd in Royal Oak.
When is the Detroit Zoo open?
The Detroit Zoo is open year-round — except for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. However, the hours can vary by month and season. Arrive early because parking can fill up fast.
What kinds of exhibits does the Detroit Zoo have?
The zoo offers everything from penguin exhibits to reptiles to dinosaurs to African and American mammals to an aviary. You can take a look at the zoo map before you go.
How can I get tickets to the Detroit Zoo?
Some general admission tickets are available at the Detroit Zoo’s gate each day, but to guarantee your zoo experience, purchasing tickets in advance is advisable. Tickets can be purchased online, or you can call (248) 541-5717 for assistance.
Does the Detroit Zoo have dining options?
During your visit, you and your family will probably get hungry, especially if it’s a hot day. Thankfully, the Detroit Zoo has plenty of options for all taste buds.
Make Your Way to the Detroit Zoo Today!
As you can see, the Detroit Zoo offers something special for every visitor. Whether you’re a big fan of polar bears, you adore kangaroos, or you can’t get enough of reptiles, the zoo has all of those and so much more.
A trip to the Detroit Zoo is a special one you won’t soon forget, and it will undoubtedly be one of the most fun things you do in Michigan any time of the year!
Note: The Awesome Mitten Team is grateful to Aaron Cruz for contributing to this article.